Cruising for Cops

Copwatch, an earnest band of volunteers, aims to stamp out police brutality -- and vanquish institutional racism -- by aiming a camera.

The writings of Black Panthers Bobby Seale and the late Huey Newton provide incentive, inspiration and purpose. The Black Panther Party itself got its start by cop-watching when Newton and his followers patrolled the streets of Oakland in the late 1960s. In the event Newton was pulled over by a cop -- and he often was -- Newton could use the rhetoric of the law against the officers. By asserting his legal rights, he stripped much power that racist cops held.

Olson made news this year by opposing a new ASU course called "Exploring our White/Euro American Roots" on the grounds that it was brazenly racist. The course is not available to ASU students next semester.

Olson studies black history. He cites W.E.B. Du Bois' 1903 Afro-American classic Souls of Black Folk as a major influence. Marx was on Olson's bedside table as well.

A Copwatch volunteer hands out "bust cards."
Paolo Vescia
A Copwatch volunteer hands out "bust cards."
The Copwatch crew.
Paolo Vescia
The Copwatch crew.

"I think in this society, being defined as white gives you a lot of advantages," he says in his calm drone. "It makes it easier to get a loan, it makes it easier to get in the school of your choice, it makes it easier to get a job, and, it usually means you are going to get nicer treatment by the cops."

As ivory as an Irish Swede can be, Olson considers race more a function of power and privilege than one of biology or culture. Too confident to be called a self-hater, he says white privilege allows him to demand reform.

"Whiteness is not a form of power that I like to associate with, and I'm willing to throw myself in situations that other people probably shouldn't because I am confident that the cops will treat me in a different way than they'll treat other people," Olson says.

"I am able to use this whiteness. . . . Historically, the key obstacle in preventing any kind of movement for a better society has been white supremacy, and so I looked to movements that fought against it. And not just to end racism. I think in those struggles lies a vision for a totally new kind of democracy. A more radical democracy."

Such police practices as "racial profiling" and traffic stops for "driving while black" are manifestations of the institutionalized racism in police departments, Copwatch believes. Profiling, employed as a gauge of potentially illegal behavior, is not uncommon across the country. While most departments deny that race is one of the characteristics they use; studies in New Jersey, Maryland and elsewhere allege otherwise. Debate over racial profiling flared in April when state troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike wounded two blacks and a Hispanic who where riding in a van that had been pulled over for speeding. The incident caught Washington's attention.

Phoenix Police Chief Harold Hurtt, who is black, agrees that racial profiling is a problem because "we hire human beings."

"From a realistic standpoint," Hurtt says, "I think we all would have policies or practices against racial profiling. And we do know, as with any organization, that we are going to have employees with their own personal vices [who] do not follow those polices. I think on a national basis there is an issue that very much concerns major city police chiefs. . . .

"I think for any police chief to say that 'None of my officers have ever or never will [employ profiling],' I think that's a police chief [who] is not really aware of what's going on in America."

Hurtt, who recently was asked to join a national committee that is studying racial profiling, says his department is drafting a policy that would outlaw racial profiling in Phoenix and require officers to stop suspects "based upon suspicion of probable cause or for an investigation."

"I would say that it is our policy not to practice that [racial profiling]," says Hurtt. "Would we guarantee that it would never occur? No we would not. But we certainly have the expectation of our officers that they will not do it."

Olson believes Hurtt is sincere and is "probably a better police chief" than his recent predecessors.

"My criticism is of the role the chief and the police play," Olson says. "The person who wears the uniform is, to me, less important than the role that they as cops play in this society. And the role of the cop hasn't changed from the old days in which it was a way to keep the rich side of town clean and safe for the rich while containing all the crime and rabble on the poor side of town. . . .

"Basically since the Watts riots in '65, police forces around the country were faced with a choice -- either we control these inner-city neighborhoods with tanks and guns like they are doing in South Africa or we have to come with a new model of policing because the overt model of open power just isn't working.

"I'm not into attacking Hurtt personally. I'm into saying that the role the police play, even black policemen, is to enforce the color line. Keep the Biltmore the Biltmore and keep South Phoenix South Phoenix. Whether it's in Oakland or Philadelphia or Portland or where ever."

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